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Breaking down the diversity silo: Why trainings won’t help the electric power sector – and what will

Humans don’t like being told what to do; our psyches are predisposed to assert autonomy and individuality. Try to police our thoughts or actions and we’re likely to rebel. So when employees are forced to attend diversity trainings, typically aimed at avoiding lawsuits, and are told what is acceptable speech, who they should hire or how they should think based on a person’s sex, race, religion, ethnicity or sexual preference, it is little surprise that folks resist. Worse, evidence suggests diversity training can instigate or deepen prejudice.

Despite social scientists knowing this about our nature for more than 50 years, it took examining three decades of data to sufficiently suggest the ineffectiveness of traditional mandatory workplace diversity training. You may be able to achieve better results if you ease up on the control tactics, and instead focus on engaging people in problem solving and building on the human need to be seen positively by our peers. In fact, the analysis of more than 800 U.S. companies showed that many of the most effective strategies aren’t even implemented with diversity in mind; it simply comes as a by-product.

 

Diversity on the roof: GRID Alternatives has become a model for diversity in the solar sector (Source: GRID Alternatives)

More to the point, diversity and inclusion (D&I) cannot be delegated to human resources, a D&I department or one individual. Just like the success of your business rides on every employee, the responsibility of achieving a goal of diversity and inclusion lies with everyone, and accountability must be built in at all levels.

If diversity training isn’t effective, what is?

On this question, I can’t tear myself away from a quote from Emily Peck, HuffPost’s senior reporter, in her article Diversity Programs are Failing Minorities. Here’s a Better Way:

“Businesses need to treat diversity problems the same way they would treat, say, a drop in profits — all hands on deck to fix the issue immediately. Hold people accountable, question current practices and measure everything. No self-respecting public company would hold ‘profits training,’ then sit back and hope individuals make things better. Yet so many of them offer ‘bias training,’ as though telling workers they have a tendency to unconsciously believe harmful stereotypes is all you need to do to fix the issue.”

The electric power industry is evolving from siloed ways of imagining and creating the energy future to recognizing we’re going to need to work together in order to keep our electrical grid stable, reliable and cost-effective for all. Essentially, we’re making a call for all hands on deck. We need utilities, developers, trade associations and everyone else in order to achieve the grid of the future. Creating a more inclusive and diverse workforce demands the same thinking.

The success of this approach relies heavily on middle management – from how these key players hire, to the way they evaluate and promote the people they supervise. Why? Because they have the most day-to-day interaction with all levels of employees and where company culture is created and reinforced. The CEO and executive team can have the best intentions and create a magnificent plan to achieve the most diverse workplace, but if the managers aren’t invested, don’t feel accountable or aren’t provided resources, then goals will remain unfulfilled.

Three successful training alternatives businesses have implemented to get managers on board include:

  1. Engagement: When folks willingly take part in voluntary training, mentorship, college recruitment of underrepresented communities, or are involved in a company task force to actively promote diversity within an organization, they can begin to feel and behave like a steward or champion of the program’s success.
  2. Contact: Business practices that promote contact between diverse people, such as project teams that include employees of varying professional levels, function or background, all working toward a common goal, have positive effects on individual perception.
  3. Social accountability: Whether through a dedicated diversity manager or regular check-ins from a company group, building public accountability can yield results by leveraging the human need to look good in the eyes of others, rising to more conscientious standards in order to maintain social acceptance.

If you must train…

Instead of a labeled diversity training, seek out a communications or leadership course. Focus on creating a positive context in which all employees are given tools to work through difficult and uncomfortable situations involving a broad range of individuals, rather than focusing on categories of people. Encourage skills that challenge everyone to push beyond their natural instinct to recognize similarity and difference, to concentrate on each person’s individuality.

At the same time, thinking of someone as “just like me” can be as dangerous as thinking of someone as part of a category of people rather than an individual person. For example, typical ways of discussing the loaded topic of diversity has been shown to stress out white males — a reaction not likely limited to that demographic — but implementing strategies and policies not labeled for diversity tends to foster greater receptivity.

Although this approach can seem problematic in its own way, I posit that people aren’t generally prejudiced – consciously or not – against specific, flesh-and-blood individuals; they’re prejudiced against stereotypes. Have you ever heard someone say, “Sure, Larry is gay, but he’s not like other gay people.” The problem here is not Larry, but the perception of gay people in general. Replace gay with elderly, handicapped, gender non-conforming, Mexican, or any other socio-economic group, and you can probably think of a time you’ve heard this.

Talking about creating diversity is inherently optimistic, making it easy to forget that diversity — or rather the need for it in the workplace — isn’t inherently positive. Within the U.S. it stems from the historically poor treatment of non-white, non-male, non-hetersexual humans in society.

Intentionally creating a more diverse workplace underlines these broken aspects of our society, and it’s important to ensure the optimistic does not overshadow the inequality that has sparked this need. We must make room for the difficult conversations that will come up when we commit to a mission of diversity and inclusion — even if we are labeling it something else.

Working to create a company culture that not only expects difference but finds individual differences valuable is how the electric power sector will move toward looking more like the customers we serve. Mandatory trainings won’t achieve these results but we can make a better workplace by being human, empathetic and not overemphasizing otherness. We are all in this together, for the tough conversations and the positive results.

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